Put the brakes on the apologies. Think about your brands. And give us a reason to buy your cars. That's what marketing gurus say General Motors must do as it begins a massive overhaul of advertising worth more than $2 billion a year now that it's out of bankruptcy protection. Since emerging from bankruptcy court last month, GM is looking to revive sales as it focuses on its four remaining brands: Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC. Experts say it has to get back to basics and tell consumers why they should choose its cars over those made by rivals like Ford, Toyota and Honda. The company can do that, they say, by showing how its vehicles perform and by staking out stronger brand identities.
There's no better time than now, as thousands of consumers who normally wouldn't be buying cars are lured into showrooms by the US government's "cash-for-clunkers" trade-in programme. GM knows it has work to do, and it assigned the job to legendary auto executive Bob Lutz, not exactly known for his marketing experience but a longtime product development chief known for his blunt style. Lutz, now in charge of GM's ad content, promised "quick" and "drastic" changes to GM's tone after he took the job last month.
The company says it is reviewing accounts with its many ad agencies. "The new stuff is in the works and it's great," he says, though he declined to say when it would start airing. Marketing hasn't always been a problem for GM. After all, it created some of the world's most legendary brands. But particularly in the past five years, the campaigns became more varied and incongruent. Remember the 2007 Super Bowl ad featuring a robot who killed himself in a dream sequence?
"These were all over the place," says Deborah Mitchell, a marketing professor at Wisconsin School of Business. "One might say they should be all over the place because they've got different brands. But the problem is even within the campaigns, there was a lot of jumping around." So what should GM do? First, stop apologising. The company must distance its corporate identity from its brands, says Jim Wangers, the marketing guru behind the Pontiac GTO, GM's first muscle car in the 1960s. The company shouldn't do any more with its "reinvention" campaign, which admits mistakes but promises change, he says.
"I would like to see them forget about apologizing, get out from under that GM umbrella and start beating somebody and start talking to me about that fine line of Chevys, Caddies and Buicks," he says. But it's not simply a matter of telling the public through advertisements, says veteran marketing strategist Al Ries. GM must define niches for its brands and let consumers know, for example, how a Chevy is different from a Toyota. GM has been so focused on making its cars better that its brands are confusing to consumers.
Consumers don't really know what makes a car "better" but they do respond to "different," he says, citing the success of brands slike Porsche, Volkswagen and Mini Cooper. "You won't solve the problem by making better cars," Ries says. "You'll solve the problem by making different cars that stand for something." The company's lineup is among the best in its history, says Peter De Lorenzo, publisher of autoextremist.com, who used to work in automotive advertising and marketing. But consumers think only two words when they hear GM, he says: "bad" and "bankruptcy." "The negativity of what happened with GM will eventually recede into the background if the products are so good that they can't be ignored," De Lorenzo says. "But that will take time."
* The Associated Press, with files from Tom Krisher